7 Tricks Advertisers Use to Manipulate You Into Spending More Money
Today’s consumers must be more vigilant than ever in the face of clever, and even deceptive, marketing tactics. Of course, there are consumer protection laws intended to discourage misleading advertising, but if no consumer actually files a lawsuit, ads often go unchallenged. For larger corporations that can certainly afford the occasional lawsuit, the payoff is often well worth the risk of running an ad that toes the line. Retailers and salespeople have countless tricks up their sleeves as well, such as the instant markdown, creating a false sense of urgency or scarcity, and decoy pricing.
Between the in-store tricks and sneaky advertising tactics, consumers are struggling to navigate an increasingly aggressive environment. It’s no wonder that 50% of Americans don’t trust what they see, hear, and read in advertisements. The recent book Hidden Persuasion: 33 Psychological Influence Techniques in Advertising, written by Dutch social psychology professors Matthijs van Leeuwen and Rick van Baaren and visual design art director Marc Andrews, delves into the subtle ways that advertisements influence consumers, even at the subliminal level. Many ads are designed to fool you, and sometimes it’s painfully obvious, regardless of the FTC’s stance on false or deceptive advertising.
The FTC recently made attempts to more effectively curb misleading advertising. In March 2013, the commission updated guidelines originally established in 2000 for digital marketing communications, and in September 2014 it announced the launch of “Operation Full Disclosure.” The FTC’s initiative focused on disclosures that were in fine print or were otherwise easy to miss or difficult to read, yet contained pertinent information needed to avoid misleading consumers. Warning letters were sent to more than 60 companies, including 20 of the 100 largest advertisers in the country.
Despite these increased regulatory efforts, advertising remains an influential industry whose power frequently goes unchecked. Although many clever ads are totally above board, consumers would be wise to continue to question what they see, hear, and read. Here are seven ways advertisers succeed in fooling consumers.
One way that advertisers get our attention is by giving human qualities to non-human objects or beings. Marc Andrews points out that the typeface in the Heineken logo slyly suggests the “e”s are smiling because of the way they are slanted. Though you may not consciously notice it, this small detail can alter brand perception. The World Wildlife Fund also makes use of anthropomorphism, frequently giving animals human characteristics in its advertising to make viewers feel an emotional closeness or empathy with the animal.
2. Social proof
The popularity of consumer review sites and apps is evidence of just how much value today’s consumers place on customer feedback. Brands know this, and they now use Facebook “likes” and other forms of social approval to advertise their products. Marc Andrews, one of the authors of Hidden Persuasion, explains that even a claim such as “The majority of people prefer Wonder Bread” can have great influence on human behavior. When companies use social proof in this way, consumers are likely to change their perception quickly, often before it occurs to them to check the claim for legitimacy.
3. Acknowledging resistance
Transparency, or the illusion of transparency, is one way that brands attempt to use consumer resistance to their advantage. As Andrews points out, consumers don’t like to be told what to do or what to buy. Some claim advertisers effectively use anti-consumerism or anti-advertising sentiments and turn them against consumers to sell them products. This advertisement for the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel beats the consumer to the punch simply by acknowledging its shortcomings as a low-end lodging option.
4. Reverse psychology
Taking advantage of reverse psychology, a technique largely tied in with acknowledging resistance, involves persuading someone to do what you want by pretending not to want it or by pretending to want something else. The principle is closely related to reactance theory, or the idea that people who feel their control is being taken away will take it back through defiance. For example, Patagonia’s cheeky full-page New York Times ad that declared “Don’t buy this jacket” helped launch its common threads initiative to reduce the company’s carbon footprint and encourage consumers to do the same. In this way, Patagonia used the ad to sell itself as a brand, and that brand is indeed, still in the business of selling jackets.
5. Suggested sex appeal
Matthijs van Leeuwen, another author behind Hidden Persuasion, claims the most prevalent social influence technique advertisers use is sex appeal. Whether it’s an ad for men’s cologne or a diet product, the suggestion that a product will better your chances of having sex subtly creates a favorable association with that product in consumers’ brains, even if they are unaware of it. Ranging from the symbolic to the overt, sexual suggestiveness in advertising goes back to ads for saloons in the 19th century.
6. Misleading visuals
An infographic from FinancesOnline shows just how different an advertisement can be from reality, from fast food to hotels to products directly marketed to children. Techniques for presenting food can include spraying grapes with hairspray to create an illusion of freshness, using mashed potatoes in place of ice cream, and coloring hamburgers with brown shoe polish. Photoshopping models, a practice that has become standard, may not seem particularly dangerous, but the American Medical Association claims this practice seriously threatens the health of adolescents.
7. Online and in-store tracking
Many Internet users are now familiar with retargeting and other online advertising techniques in which consumers’ personal data is gathered in order to study audience demographics or serve ads specifically tailored to individual consumers. These tracking methods, which often require that consumers opt-out rather than opt-in, also extend to the physical world. Some retailers have taken gleaning customer data to a new level by tracking shoppers’ eye movements or spying on them with cameras hidden in mannequins.